Blog Post

Google & The Big Ideas

Sometimes, a tweet is just a tweet. Occasionally it is just a start of a healthy debate!

Earlier today, when I read about Google (s GOOG) launching a mobile version of Tasks, I was amazed by the attention being focused on what is essentially a to-do list web site. And while it wasn’t worth a story, I shared my feelings via Twitter. My tweet read:

I think google has no big ideas. this morning they announced a to-do-list. FGS. [For God Sake] Remember the Milk MUCH better.

Clearly, 140 characters weren’t enough to express the fullness of my thought, but somehow the flippancy of my remark rankled my slightly overcaffeinated friend, Matt Cutts, a respected Google veteran who responded to my tweet with a series of comments on my FriendFeed, now aggregated on his blog. Essentially to make a point that I might be off base, he made a list of Google’s big ideas, including some announced just this week:

* Google is funding research on the Singularity.
* Google mapping the oceans for Google Maps.
* Google’s research into deep web/dark web.
* Gmail’s offline availability.
* Google tool to measure broadband, especially useful now that more and more broadband providers are looking to shift to a metered broadband model.
* Google’s Android Mobile Operating System.
* Google Chrome, a fast web browser with a distinct philosophy of ease-of-use and radically improved security abstractions.

Matt’s comments and the responses both on this blog and FriendFeed resulted in some thoughts about what constitutes a big idea, where Google is right and where it is light. Instead of responding on FriendFeed, I decided to share my thoughts with you, hoping that we could have a larger conversation about Google and the big ideas.

For me, startups and products such as Skype, Flickr and YouTube represent big ideas. Why? Because they not only redefine our notions about certain technologies, but they also change our behavior and cause massive disruption. For instance, Skype redefined our relationship with our phone and in the process, disrupted the telecom industry. Flickr made a largely one-way web into a dynamic, thriving social community. Today even our friends at the Wall Street Journal have comments, and the New York Times is hoping to use LinkedIn to foster a community. YouTube made us rethink television by making it dead simple not only to consume video but also to broadcast video.

Similarly, Google’s search changed how we consumed information. Instead of going to destinations, we now consume information by just finding it. What made this “big idea” even more disruptive — Google’s use of data analytics to offer highly focused advertising messages to marry search queries. (Of course, Google wasn’t the one to think of this big idea, but that’s a whole other story.)

From that perspective, Google’s efforts in geo-location services (maps) and its open-source mobile operating system qualify as a big idea. They are not separate efforts but a single big idea. My big belief is that as we transition to an increasingly mobile world, the location beacon takes the role of the TCP, and most mobile services (and applications) find their context from this location beacon. I think Google gets it, mostly because of Andy Rubin and Rich Miller. (Check out their post about their new effort, Google Latitude.)

Giving credit where it is due, I think Matt is right in calling searching the deep web as a big idea. It is a vexing problem –- and has been for a while. My only caveat is that as a search company, well isn’t that like adding more features to their core business?

As noted in the past, they have done some exceptional and possibly radical work in the field of web infrastructure. Big Table and MapReduce are game-changing innovations that brought about a change to the way web builders thought about building the next generation of web infrastructure.

Even though it is debatable, one could add Google’s Chrome browser to this list, but they would have to share the limelight with Apple (s AAPL) and Mozilla Firefox because those two are also trying to redefine the browser experience. The browser’s evolution is crucial to the next reincarnation of the web.

However, I don’t think funding Singularity University qualifies as a big idea. Sure they are brave in funding this university, but folks have been funding the Singularity study for a while now. Similarly, Google isn’t the only one making a broadband meter and many different variants have been the on the market for a while now. The offline availability of Gmail or web applications isn’t just a Google breakthrough –- others have been working on that as well.

A lot of what they have offered is me-too products, some of them quite inferior to their competitors. Of course, many were way late to the market. The iGoogle effort is a perfect example. Google’s 800GOOG411 voice search service came to market much after TellMe and other startups such as Jingle Networks’ 1-800-FREE411 had been released. It still has yet to make its mark in the increasingly crowded voice search business.

And if you look at some of the projects they decided to shut down recently, you get the drift. With the exception of the very exceptional Gmail, Google is rather below par when it comes to consumer web applications. (I think Amazon (s amzn) has the real bragging rights when it comes to consumer web ideas.)

Looking ahead, in addition to “location-based services,” I would call the real-time web and applications that tap into the real-time web the big idea. Much of the early excitement in this arena has come from FriendFeed (ironically started by ex-Googlers involved with Google Mail and Google Maps), Twitter and Facebook’s News Feed efforts.

Of course, this is my opinion, and Matt (caffeine or not) will disagree. And so will others.

81 Responses to “Google & The Big Ideas”

  1. Omar Aloyoun

    Thanks OM for this debatable post about latest innovation trends in relation with new products out there.
    Also, Google is so popular for its internal idea screening process that lead to the launch of a very successful ideas to the market. My question is, if Google takes care of innovative ideas from external sources?
    Any channels out there? Any contacts?
    I will appreciate if any reader too can give us some resources/information.

  2. isn’t the goog411 service just a way for google to cheaply build up its own voice database to one day be able to automatically transcribe the web’s videos and audio, and to do mobile voice-cued search? they don’t really need a big market share, just enough callers to build up their accent database

  3. Om I think this is a thoughtful post, especially as it dovetails with the recent suggestions that the future may hold challenges for Google in the form of moves to vertical searches and “new ways” of online interaction. Social media is starting to eclipse search activity and social media has never been a strong suit for Google

  4. We should expect Google to be all out of ideas.


    Google is a search and advertising company. As much as we like to personify the brand – “Google does this”, “Google thinks that”, etc. – it is ultimately a business and the individuals running the business will tend to make decisions that maximize revenue or minimize costs. It won’t always do this, but it will tend to, especially if it’s a public company as Google is.

    Once a business comes across and implements an idea that generates a buckload of revenue, the decision-making process of that company tends to stifle innovation beyond this idea out of fear that these newer ideas will “cannibalize” their cash cow or will take “resources” away from making their cash cow even fatter. Again this isn’t always the case, it’s a simplification, but it’s baked into the DNA of all businesses and is difficult to avoid. Google is no exception. Larry and Sergey identified an opportunity to build a better search engine, and eventually found a brilliant revenue stream in text-based contextual advertising. That’s Google’s big idea. Their teams executed on this idea extremely well, and now the business is swimming in cash.

    We should actually expect that Google has no more ideas.

    The fact that individuals push their ideas within the company, get buy-in, and eventually launch – like the Tasks team – makes Google unique and interesting, and is a testament to the perserverence of those individuals.

    But if we’re looking to Google to be the one true source of innovation, we’re looking in the wrong place.

  5. Are there any new, big ideas? Seriously, a to-do list is a big idea? Paper is STILL better than any online or cell phone way…google needs to improve their search engine. After all, it’s still what-they-do!

  6. You’re not wrong in principle but I think Gmail qualifies as a big idea by completely redefining the webmail space and forcing everyone else to innovate. Hard to say where to put Google Calendar which was and still is the best I know out there – it was a game changer for many people by making it the first one viable (kind of like the iPod did for MP3 players). Google Scholar is another pretty good idea – simply adding the Google Search juice to where only structured data searches were once possible.

    Google Tasks is certainly not a big idea because its implementation is half-hearted and it doesn’t integrate well with the rest of the services – it simply has nothing that makes the others great. Shutting development on Google Notebook was a downright moronic idea – it was a great collaborative platform that could have been integrate elsewhere.

    I guess in retrospect none of the big ideas were really new as such – they just took the existing ideas over the edge and made them qualitatively different. Like the last grain of sand on a heap.

  7. Sanket Sharma

    I dont know if you’ll even read this comment or not, but I couldn’t agree more with you on that.

    I think google has been lacking innovation after the initial adsense and search. In fact, I would go on to say that the only thing google perfected (not, invented) is mining. They started by mining the web (webpages), the are mining the web more (e-mails, blogs, videos, images) and by looks of it -latitude, ocean maps, mars maps etc. it seems like they’ll only mine more. Infact, it seems that it is the only thing they seem to know.

    However, I must say, they know it darn well. Better than anyone else perhaps.

    Give them something, they’ll mine it. They’ll not only mine you, you e-mails, your online stats, but they’ll mine your cats and dogs as well. And they’ll mine kitty litter and dog’s poop as well. If you are online, they already know enough about you. They have Maps and street views. They have advertisers. With launch of latitude, they’ll target location specific ads to you. Now that they have oceanographic and martian mapping in place, you can’t get away from them -if you are underwater in a russian submarine or even on mars. If you ever get so full of google that you decided to kill yourself in a singularity, Google latitude will guide you to nearest one, should their research on singularity leads to anything.

    As for Google buying other startups, I think they are only successful that they can mine. You tube for instance. It would come as no surprise if openDNS is next on its list, simply because it adds to their ability to mine what users are doing.

    Coming back to innovation, you must really take a look at this wikipedia entry to see how innovative ‘Google’ really has been Android was bought over, chrome was apple’s and some other company’s work bought over by google and so on.And looking the list of acquisitions, you’ll see – its all about mining and analytics.

  8. Tasks is obviously not a “big” idea. The problem is that it could have been. Why did Google put this out there after just a perfunctory effort to think through the features needed? People have been begging for this ever since Google Calendar was introduced. And after a couple of years thing about it, this was all they produced? Looks like an elephant labored to bring forth a mouse. I would love to consolidate this part of my life under Google, but this effort is just too amateurish.

  9. jeroendemiranda

    The ‘Real Time Web’ is currently being (re-)defined by FriendFeed. Some very interesting innovations are:

    – SUP – Simple Upgrade Protocol – eliminating the time-lag of RSS publishing with a very simple and powerful new protocol. This is very helpful; also with regards to the current problems that FeedBurner is facing (migration problems of moving RSS feeds from the original FeedBurner platform to Google accounts; as Google has acquired FeedBurner some time ago)

    – The extended search functionality of FriendFeed released this week – having flexible and complex queries that can act RSS feeds makes FriendFeed increasingly THE platform for livestream integration

    FriendFeed is one of the platforms that strives to be completely open, offering API’s to almost all functionality.

    It also helps that FriendFeed has been founded by some Google veterans – ensuring a seamless integration and co-working with Google – it seems very easy to get top page rankings with FriendFeed entries in Google search.

  10. I don’t think its such a big surprise that Google is not on the forefront of game changing apps/services. All successful upstart companies go through this. Google’s core competency is search. It changed the search game. However, just because they are great at search doesn’t mean they will be great elsewhere. Its especially true with its organizational bloat.

    Today, Google seems to resort to a me-to strategy, basically trying to win by giving stuff away for free. So their strategic advantage appears to be their vast monetary resources. While that might be a compelling advantage in some industries, such as semiconductors or bio-pharma, its hardly the case on the web.

  11. I guess a fundamental question that I struggle wrt Google’s view of itself (and how we should view it) is whether all of this data and all of the APIs behind the applications are fundamentally islands or whether they are continentally integrate-able under the hood (i.e., fodder for one composite application sandbox).

    Case in point, Google Analytics and Google AdWords/AdSense. Logically, these products should fit hand and glove, and have synchronous road maps (and maybe to some extent they do).

    But that’s also hard in the global sense since product groups tend to want autonomy, not to be overly dependent upon other groups executing, not to have to coordinate on agreed upon APIs and workflows to be supported. Plus, it complicates the “who’s the customer story” in terms of optimized workflows, etc.

    In fact, the only company that got this right over a long haul was Microsoft, with Win 32/MFC, whereby Gates, et al would define a set of core foundational technologies supported across tools, consumer apps, server products, and later, web offerings. MS has clearly lost this DNA, but look what Apple is doing in this regard with iPhone Platform.

    That is the power of an integrated approach. In case of Google, perhaps the goal is to remain simple and very loosely coupled, but the mind boggles when thinking about what one meta layer for developers across YouTube, Search, Maps, Mail, Images, News, AdWords and Analytics would do to open the floodgate for developers/consumers.

    Some time back, I tried to articulate this one wrt Google News in a post called:

    Decomposing Google News and Making it Social

  12. followup:

    i stand corrected on at least one major Google acquisition that has been nurtured, integrated, and has dominated: Google Analytics (nee Urchin, via Brett Crosby & team). (thanks for the correction Avinash)

    probably also worth noting that the DoubleClick / Performics folks are doing pretty well too… and i’m guessing the CPA / performance marketing industry will benefit quite nicely from the recent downturn, much like CPC before it was birthed in the middle of the 2001-2004 dot com implosion.

  13. vijay gill

    The net net point here is that google isn’t afraid of looking stupid and/or failing and falling on their face. And that, and that alone, is the differentiator.

  14. Good post. Google is not god to have a 100% success rate on all their products. They have been innovating and coming up with lot of new products/ideas. Its only natural that some of them succeed and some fail. Looking at their track record they have a good success rate so far. Compared to lot of other large tech companies out there(Microsoft, Google etc) Google has been doing a much better job at innovation and breaking new ground. Specific to this product while the concept is a pretty standard one it would be interesting to see how they deliver it and create user experience.This will ultimately determine the success of the product.

  15. It is always hard for a large company to incubate “great ideas”, to productize and monetize them.

    Does Google spin-out/fund internal teams with good/great ideas as startups ?

    Terry Matthews at Newbridge Networks had a successfull model where Newbridge used to spin-out internal teams as startups focused on complementary and new product ideas in the same ecosystem. While none of these may classify as a “great idea”, there were several “good ideas” like Video surveillance, VoIP, DWDM, Service Management, Broadband Wireless startup – long before the boom and bust.


  16. I heard rumors a while ago that Google Chrome had taken a turn for the worse and was experiencing some problems. It would seem to me that focusing any sort of attention on a “to-do list” application/website is a total waste of time and resources, what ever happened to writing all of that down on a piece of paper? Or if you just despise having to actually write something use the already available task applications on your iPhone or BlackBerry. Granted, I don’t have an inside look at all of Google’s operations but this seems a bit of a waste to me!

  17. As we can see in this discussion the question is not only what qualifies as an big idea, but also why do they mostly occur outside large organizations, assuming even Google’s infra structure ideas occurred before Google was a big company.
    From what I have seen it can be described as, as more you know as more you know why things might not work. Thereby limiting yourself to incremental, if your are lucky, advances. This can also be seen in scientific research were most breakthroughs are done early in a given career. Which also shows that one has to have a base to work from but not having reached the intersection of knowing to much of why things might not work.

    From having taught machines some weird stuff, it can always be traced back to not having a build in false, So they learn what will not work, as more fine grained they do the decomposition, as more they know about a given subject, as more they know something new will not work.

    The only way to push this intersection out is diversification of knowledge, but if companies hire people who think the same or have the same knowledge they just close the the intersection.
    That’s my explanation from working with rather simple learning machines. Which also leaves us being unable to build an infinitive smart machine, without infinitive diversified knowledge.